John Klemme left for Europe after graduating from the University of Iowa in 1992. He founded the tour company Bike Switzerland in 2004.
This piece was excerpted and edited from the magazine International School Parent.
What brought you to Switzerland and when?
I came to Switzerland to work for the first time back in 1992 after graduating from the University of Iowa. I got hired at a summer camp and did that for four years. In the meantime, I earned a teaching degree back in the states. I wanted to live outside the USA and I thought that degree was my ticket. I had planned to teach English in Chile, but spent one more summer in Switzerland and that lead to my first real teaching job at a private school in Gstaad.
How is Switzerland like Iowa ? How is it different ?
I guess the differences are the most striking. I grew-up on a dairy farm 10 miles from where I went to school in Akron, Iowa. That was also the nearest town with a main street. So, as a kid, I’d sometimes ride my bike 10 miles just to see friends and spend my allowance. There wasn’t much between our farm and that town. Switzerland is dense. It’s hard to bike more than a mile or two before you pass something interesting…. a village, a view, a bakery, a lake.
I think the rural communities in Iowa and Switzerland have things in common. There are a lot of small family farms in Switzerland and the kids grow up learning to drive a tractor, milk cows, tend garden, etcetera.
Can you tell us about the story of Bike Switzerland and what inspired you to set it up?
I was living in Geneva and had been teaching for over ten years. This was back around 2004. I was beginning to feel burned-out. I didn’t have any real money to quit my job and start a business and so I needed to find something that I enjoyed that was compatible with teaching.
So, having a lot of time in the summer, I got the idea to work for a bicycle tour company. I wrote to someone who did tours in Europe and proposed my services. I would develop the itinerary, research hotels, bike rentals and do the guiding. The company said, “go for it”. So, I began doing all of this research and after a few weeks I thought, “I should just get a website and do this myself”.
The first few years I did just one tour itinerary. I hired a van driver, rented the bikes from a local shop and I did all the guiding myself. Then I took a bit more time off in the summer and developed another itinerary. After three years I had enough money saved up to by a small fleet of bikes.
Once I had those bikes, I decided that I should try to rent them and so developed a rentals website and that took off. When that happened, I had to take off even more time from my “real” job.
It was really hard to let go of that job. I finally made the leap five years ago when a storefront near the train station opened up. I thought the location was perfect as we had two large caves right below the place that we were using for storage. So, I quit my job and opened the shop. At that point my plate was full and I had no choice but to start doing Bike Switzerland full time.
What is the RAGBRAI connection ?
I did RAGBRAI VIII with my father back in 1980 ! I must have been just 10 or 11 years old. I did it again when I was a teenager and then another time as an adult. I also promoted Bike Switzerland on RAGBRAI back when I first started the company. We had a big stand that we set-up in the middle of town each day. We still get riders doing our tours in Switzerland because they saw us on RAGBRAI.
Crossing the entire state of Iowa also made an impression on me. As a kid, it gave me bragging-rights. As an adult, it really helped me to understand my state a lot better. So, when I started planning tours in Switzerland, I kept the concept of “the crossing”. All of our tours cross Switzerland.
Who are your customers and which of Bike Switzerland’s services do they value most?
Our clientele is all over the map. We’ve got customers flying in from London for the weekend to rent bikes. We’ve got locals who buy bikes and need them serviced. We have Russians doing independent tours, Americans signing up for our guided tours. Everyone really – Brazilians, Indians, Taiwanese.
What do you love most about cycling?
Of course, there’s nature, exercise and the fact that it’s a really perfect machine. But I also really like where my mind goes when I’m on a bike. The pace and rhythm is such that I’m always thinking on the bike, coming up with ideas, solutions or just meditating.
Is there anything about Switzerland that makes it the perfect place to cycle?
Of course, there are the roads and the dedicated bicycle paths that have been planned and mapped-out. Those routes give us ideas and direction.
But just as valuable are the trains. There are lots of 100 km cycling loops you can do in Geneva, but you’ll eventually do them all and want something more. When that happens, put your bike on an early morning train and head to the Jura, to Bern or Graubunden and you’ve got a whole new world to explore.
Bike Switzerland’s bike tour holidays are very popular. Can you describe the format, and who usually joins them?
We do guided and independent tours. The guided tours include everything: guides, bike, the hotels, luggage delivery, catered lunches and evening meals at restaurants. These tours are limited to 18 riders and those joining come from around the world. Of course, they’re open to meeting new people. In the best instances, it’s a party on wheels.
But those tours are at specific times on our calendar and not everyone can make the dates and so we also offer “independent tours”. This is where we supply the bikes, hotels, luggage transfers and then give the clients a GPS and maps. Riders on those tours have to be a little more independent and should feel comfortable changing a flat tire.
Then we also do private guided tours for riders who want guides, but can’t make the dates of our regular guided tours. Or for riders who would prefer not to pass their holiday in a big group.
What have been your greatest challenges running the business in a foreign country?
If anything, being a foreigner has been an advantage. I see things differently and so sometimes see opportunities that a person born here might miss. The bureaucracy that comes with owning a business is never fun, but there’s less here than most places.
What does the future hold for Bike Switzerland?
I’d love to open up a larger shop here in Geneva and expand to Zurich. Calling all investors!
How have you made a successful business out of your passion? What advice would you give others who might be looking to make a living from their favourite hobby?
My passion was never cycling. If my passion were cycling, then the business would have killed my passion. Since starting the business full time, my cycling has dwindled to almost nothing. I hope that changes, but how can you bike 10,000 kilometres a year and run a business ?
My passion has always been the project of “Bike Switzerland”. If my goal had been to do more cycling, then I think I would have been better served working as a teacher.